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7 Factors That Contribute to Group Violence

Research points to individual and group factors that may lead to violence.

Key points

  • Collective violence is rooted in factors inherent in the individuals that form the group, the nature of groups, and the interaction of both.
  • Relative deprivation and dissatisfaction with basic human needs may contribute to group participation and violence.
  • Self-esteem and in-group satisfaction can help suppress the negative impact of collective narcissism.
  • We must address the individual and promote resilient communities to reduce group violence.
123rf Stock Photo/Leolintang
123rf Stock Photo/Leolintang

What factors contributed to the violence demonstrated on January 6, 2021? What may lead some individuals marching in peaceful protest to break into violence? What contributes to the anger, hate, and hostility associated with gangs?

It’s often a difficult challenge for law enforcement and mental health professionals to identify how individuals’ attitudes and traits interact with the nature of groups to engage in group violence. And yet, we are fortunate to have research that has started to provide answers to this challenge and strategies to reduce their impact proactively.

Relative Deprivation and Basic Needs

Relative deprivation and dissatisfaction with basic human needs may further contribute to group participation and violence (Jeong, 2022). This factor may be especially relevant when individuals experience a prolonged period of economic and social development that bring about heightened expectations that are not being addressed. Further, any would-be autocrat knows that fueling grievance may only enhance the potential for action that includes violence—especially when certain groups of people are identified as responsible for such deprivation.

The white supremacist slogan, “You will not replace us,” is an example of perceived deprivation and related threat. It referred to a contention that the white race is facing extinction, in part due to the perceived manipulation of non-whites by Jews. It derives from “The Great Replacement Theory,” described by French writer Renaud Camus in a 2012 book of the same name. Camus advocated that Europe was being overrun by the huge migration of black and/or Muslim immigrants who would replace traditional European culture with their own. Those who endorse such ideas are united in their belief of superiority coupled with fear of losing their identity and even their freedom.

Deindividuation and Anonymity

Deindividuation implies that in the midst of a crowd, an individual experiences a decrease in self-identity, which contributes to following the impulses of the crowd (Chang, 2008). Anonymity supports inhibiting a focus on one’s identity, consequently reducing the concern for self-evaluation. The impact of this effect appears to diminish with an increase in self-concept (Kurniadewi et al., 2019).

This may have been a factor for the five black officers who assaulted Tyre Nichols. Regarding their actions, Robert Sausedo, the head of a Los Angeles nonprofit formed after the beating of Rodney King in 1991, stated that “It’s not racism driving this. It’s culturalism.” Sausedo suggested that it is a culture in law enforcement that condones aggression toward those they’re supposed to serve. Consequently, the theory goes, those officers were united through the internalization of this culture.

Collective Narcissism

Recent research highlights the cohesive influence of collective narcissism as a significant factor that can lead to group violence (Golec de Zavala et al., 2022). Collective narcissism entails the belief that one’s group is exceptional and consequently deserves some form of special treatment, a perspective that is not sufficiently recognized by others. As highlighted by the authors, the diminished sense of self leaves the group hyperalert to situations that seem to threaten the group’s status.

Their meta-analysis of past studies on this issue suggests that individuals exaggerate their importance and have it confirmed through group participation- as a defensive stance to buoy one’s undermined sense of self-worth. They report that collective narcissism is associated with self-criticism and negative emotions, low social connectedness, and a heightened sensitivity to negative stimuli. They also reported that such individuals tend to experience difficulties in emotional regulation-challenges in self-soothing and regulating negative emotions.

In-Group Satisfaction as a Buffer Against Out-Group Hostility

One study found that the level of in-group satisfaction can be a buffer against out-group hostility (Golec de Zavala et al., 2020). Specifically, they found that in-group satisfaction may be associated with positive emotionality, prosociality, and life satisfaction, and that self-esteem positively is correlated with in-group satisfaction.

When the factors were teased out, their research found that self-esteem was negatively associated with collective narcissism and positively associated with in-group satisfaction. In effect, in-group satisfaction tended to suppress the negative association between collective narcissism and self-esteem.

The Role of Sensation Seeking

A few researchers performed several studies to evaluate the role of sensation-seeking in political violence (Schumpe et al., 2020). They performed seven separate studies asking participants to complete questionnaires assessing the search for meaning, sensation seeking, willingness to self-sacrifice, support for violence, and demographics.

Their studies indicated that the search for meaning predicted sensation seeking, which supported a willingness to support political violence. It’s important to emphasize the conclusion of one of their studies—that when an exciting and peaceful alternative was presented, the participant’s propensity for violence decreased.

Desensitization to Violence

Two researchers' evaluation of the literature suggests that group identification motivates violent behavior, and violent behavior increases identification with violent groups (Littman & Paluck, 2015). In effect, they concluded there is a cycle of individuals’ participation in collective violence and that such identification appears to help remove psychological obstacles to violence.

Another study involving 704 adolescents explored the role of desensitization to violence as a predictor of greater violence (Mrug et al., 2016). They found that emotional desensitization to violence in early adolescence contributed to serious violence in late adolescence.

Cognitive Inflexibility

As an anger management specialist for over forty years, I’ve observed that many individuals prone to anger experience cognitive inflexibility. Specifically, they experience difficulties in their capacity to adapt to new, changing, or unplanned events. This inflexibility constricts their capacity to identify alternative ways of reacting during arousal.

One study of this challenge found that cognitive inflexibility is a key factor associated with extremist attitudes and a greater likelihood of radicalization and related participation in intergroup violence (Zmigrod et al., 2019). These findings were based on participants’ responses to a scenario in which they were more likely to fight for the group-even die for the group.

Strategies to Prevent Group Violence

Research regarding the prevention of group violence addresses a broad range of such violence regarding gangs, political groups, and radicalization. In general, they emphasize helping individuals develop greater resilience to meet life’s challenges and ways to impact the social and environmental context positively.

Addressing the Individual

Teaching skills in emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility is perhaps the most powerful deterrent against vulnerability to violence. (Stephens et al., 2021). This might include enhancing emotional and social intelligence, compassion, empathy, and critical thinking.

Promoting Resilient Communities

An internet search of collective violence prevention leads to a list of programs developed by numerous municipalities. Aside from addressing individual concerns, these emphasize the galvanizing of communities by bringing young people, neighborhood residents, community organizations, and law enforcement to address the underlying causes of such violence. Some advocate involving parents as well. Additionally, they foster greater opportunities for teens to form connections with peers and adults in the community who can provide support through modeling and guidance.

Regardless of its specific context, collective violence is rooted in factors inherent in the individuals that form the group, the nature of groups, and the interaction of both. The good news is that there are well-researched strategies that can be employed proactively to reduce such violence. However, meeting this challenge calls for greater financial, emotional, social, and political commitment to meet the needs of individuals and the communities in which they live.


Jeong, H. (2022). Relative deprivation and basic needs in Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict (Third Ed.) Science Direct,

Chang, J. (2008). The role of anonymity in deindividuated behavior: a comparison of deindividuation theory and the social identity model of deindividuation effects. The Pulse, Vol.6, 1, 2-8

Kurniadewi, E., Kusumo, A., and Hambali, A. (2019). Self-concepts and deindividuation in brawl, The Third Workshop on Multidisciplinary and its applications, WMA-3, December.

Golec de Zavala, A., Dyduch-Hazar, K., and Lantos, D. (2019). Collective Narcissism: Political consequences of investing self-worth in the ingroup’s image. Advances in Political Psychology, Vol. 40, Suppl. 1, 37-74. doi: 10.1111/pops.12569

Golec de Zavala,, A., Sedikides, C, Lantos, D., et. al. (2020). Low self-esteem predicts out-group derogation via collective narcissism, but this relationship is obscured by in-group satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, Vol. 119, 3, 741-764.

Schumpe, B., Belanger, J., Moyano, M., (2020). The role of sensation seeking in political violence: an extension of the significance quest theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences, Vol. 118, 4, 743-761.

Littman, R. and Paluck, E. (2015). The cycle of violence: understanding individual participation in collective violence. Advances in Political Psychology, Vol. 36, S1, 79-99. doi/abs/10.1111/pops.12239

Mrug, S., Madan, A., and Windle, M. (2016). Emotional desensitization to violence contributes to adolescents’ violent behavior., Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 44, 75-86

Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, P., and Robbins, T. (2019). Cognitive inflexibility predicts extremist attitudes. Frontiers in Psychology: Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 10,

Stephens, W., Sieckelinck, S and Boutellier, H. (2021). Preventing Violent Extremism: A Review of the Literature, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 44:4, 346-361, DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2018.154314

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